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FIELD MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
Volume XX CHICAGO, DECEMBER 28, 1936 No. 22
COURTSHIP AND MATING BEHAVIOR
IN SNAKES THE LIBRARY OF THE
BY D. DWIGHT DAVIS JAN 1 1 1937
ASSISTANT, DIVISION OF OSTEOLOGY
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS
Darwin, in the Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex
was the first to give point to study of the courtship and mating
behavior of animals. Since his time much of the investigation in
this field has been devoted to critical consideration of his evidence
and conclusions. Recent widespread interest in manifestations of
sex has opened up aspects of the subject that were unknown to
Darwin. Most important among these are the genetic relations
of sex, the role of the endocrines in the physiology of sex, as well as^f
sexual behavior, and, of still broader interest, the fundamental
relation between sexual behavior and the general social behavior
Snakes as a group were mentioned briefly in the Descent of Man,
but two subsequent extensive reviewers (Cunningham, 1900; Pycraft,
1913) ignored them completely. The absence of striking secondary
sexual characters and the extraordinary dearth of published observa-
tions on sexual behavior in snakes are probably largely responsible
for the general lack of interest in this subject. The recent appearance
of an excellent and comprehensive account of the mating behavior
of their nearest living relatives, the lizards (Noble and Bradley,
1933), makes the meagerness of our knowledge with respect to the
snakes particularly apparent.
The most satisfactory approach to a study of the courtship
behavior of animals is direct observation, preferably of undisturbed
individuals in the field. Serious misinterpretations have not infre-
quently arisen from observation or experimentation on captive
material, where unnatural associations almost inevitably alter
behavior. Unfortunately one student, no matter how much time
he may spend in the field, can not hope to witness mating behavior
under natural conditions in more than an extremely small number
No. 376 257
258 FIELD MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY ZOOLOGY, VOL. XX
of animals. This results in the necessity of trying to collate the
scattered, fragmentary observations of many individuals, with the
attendant possibility of error.
In attempting to work up an unusual series of observations on
the mating of Thamnophis radix made by Mr. A. C. Weed, of the
Field Museum staff, it became increasingly apparent that the sexual
behavior of snakes merits more attention than it has received.
Existing knowledge is not only comparatively limited, but it is also
widely scattered through literature, largely in the form of brief notes.
Many important observations are buried in the midst of unrelated
material, where their presence would be unsuspected. No one has
tried to correlate his work with that of others, and consequently
few have realized what constitute the significant features of court-
ship in this group. In order to stimulate and direct further work
in this subject, the following summary of the literature has been
drawn up. This is followed by a brief consideration of sexual dimor-
phism in snakes, with particular reference to secondary sexual
characters. I have tried also to draw a few tentative conclusions
as to the broader implications of mating behavior in snakes. These
cannot be regarded as final, since they rest on data that are inade-
quate for indicating more than probabilities.
Many individuals have assisted in the preparation of this paper.
I am particularly grateful to Mr. A. C. Weed for making careful
observations and extensive notes on Thamnophis radix over a period
of several months when circumstances prevented me from witnessing
its activities myself. Mr. R. M. Perkins, of the Zoological Society
of St. Louis, has supplied data from personal observations without
which the summary would have been much less complete. My
colleague and mentor, Mr. Karl P. Schmidt, has continued to give
unselfishly of his time and thought and I am under great obligation
to him. Mr. John J. Janecek devoted painstaking care to the
preparation of the illustrations.
SUMMARY OF LITERATURE
Naturally a major part of published observations deal with the
most common members of the cosmopolitan family Colubridae.
Indeed, this is true to an unfortunate degree, and disappointing
gaps are left at important points, notably among the Elapidae,
Viperidae, and Crotalidae. Since these include the most highly
specialized of all snakes, they are important in the present connection.
Through the generosity of various individuals, particularly Mr. R. M.
1936 MATING BEHAVIOR IN SNAKES DAVIS 259
Perkins, it has been possible to fill some of these gaps by drawing on
unpublished notes and observations. The information supplied has
been included in the summary given below, and has helped to make
possible a reasonably well-rounded picture.
Some of the observations cited are of doubtful importance, but
have been included both for the sake of completeness and because
the present state of knowledge does not permit intelligent elimination
of extraneous material.
Boidae. The members of this and the succeeding family differ
from the more familiar snakes in possessing remnants of the posterior
limbs. In the males these structures appear externally in the form
of stout spurs or claws. They are present in both sexes, but are
extremely small in females. The extraordinary part they play in
the courtship of Constrictor constrictor is vividly described by Mole
and Urich (1894) as follows:
"These claws, however, are capable of being slightly protruded
and are endowed with considerable mobility. When about to couple,
the male extends these hooks at right angles to the body and vibrates
them in an extremely rapid manner, scratching, as he does so, the
back and sides of his companion. The claws scratching the scales
of his mate make a noise which can be distinctly heard two yards
r off. This habit has also been observed in Epicrates cenchris."
At a later date Mole (1924) observed a similar use of the spurs
S in the anaconda, Eunectes murinus. He states that the male "throws
c a coil or two around the female, which is usually the larger of the
^pair, and his claws are moved quickly and scratch the scaly sides of his
--mate, inducing her to crawl forward slowly until union is established.
^ One pair was thus engaged from December 24 until January 13."
Pythonidae. Mr. Perkins has observed the use of the spurs
in the blood python, Python curtus. The male lies close beside the
female, with the anterior part of his body frequently lying over her.
He then extends his spurs at right angles to his body and moves
them slowly and rhythmically from side to side, stroking the body
of the female with them directly over her cloaca. This behavior,
which has been observed to continue uninterruptedly for more than
two hours, does not produce a scratching sound, as described by
Mole and Urich for Constrictor. Under the stimulation of this
"tickling" the female gradually twists her cloacal region laterally
and the male works his tail under hers. When her cloaca is nearly
in a vertical position the female suddenly gapes it, the male inserts a
hemipenis, and copulation takes place.
260 FIELD MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY ZOOLOGY, VOL. XX
Colubridae. The recent observations of Stemmler-Morath
make it obvious that at least two widely different types of courtship
behavior are found among the members of this family. Further
work will unquestionably reveal additional behavior patterns in
this enormous assemblage of forms. Matings have been observed
in a number of colubrid genera, but unfortunately the meager notes
that have been published on most of them reveal nothing that bears
on the problem under consideration here.
What may be designated the Natrix type of mating behavior
has been more frequently and more completely described than any
other. Indeed, until recently it was the only type of snake-mating
of which there was any but the most fragmentary knowledge, and
it has frequently been assumed to characterize snakes in general.
Many of the important features of this type of mating were accurately
described more than fifty years ago by Franke (1881), who apparently
was a careful observer. His account of the mating of Coronella
austriaca is as follows (translation) :
"Pairing begins about the middle of April. For several years I
kept from forty to fifty individuals in the terrarium; the males at
pairing time exhibited much jealousy and not infrequently engaged
in fighting, in which they bit each other. The not always willing
female also protected herself from unwelcome attentions by biting.
The act of copulation is like that of the common [European] water
snake. The male crawls slowly onto the back of the female, in
which it takes exactly the same curves in which the female happens
to lie, and also adapts itself to any changes of position which the
female may make. Only the anal region of the male hangs down
toward that of the female, who recognizes the intention of the male
by a lateral turning of the anus. During these preparations, but
still more so during the two to three hour duration of the act itself,
both individuals exhibit uninterrupted contractions of irregular
strength attended by motions of the tails, which are not infrequently
mutually intertwined. The female, in the lower position, frequently
changes her position during this time, and may crawl some distance
away, but not without the male, who immediately imitates every
motion of the female. I have never observed interference on the
part of other companions, which, in fact, crawl over or beneath the
pair without taking any notice of them. I must emphasize that I
have never observed a 'close intertwining' that has been described
by other authors either in the present species or in the common
water snake, although I have witnessed copulation more than a
1936 MATING BEHAVIOR IN SNAKES DAVIS 261
hundred times. Nor is a 'suitable soft substratum' sought out,
for rough, uneven places, heaps of stones, etc., are preferred. Copu-
lation takes place only on warm days, and most frequently during
the mid-day sun of April or May."
Additional features of the mating process have been noted by
others. Truitt (1927) records an instance of a female Thamnophis
sirtalis being followed by two males. When imprisoned in a wire
enclosure and transported some distance, the female attracted three
snakes of the same species to her. One of these was captured and
found to be a male. Truitt suggests that the females, of certain
species at least, probably attract mates by means of odors. Stemm-
ler-Morath, on the basis of observations made in the large open-
air terrarium at the Basel Zoological Garden, reports that he has
observed competition among males for. the possession of a female
only in the species of the genus Natrix among European colubrids.
He states (translation) :
"Only in the species of the genus Natrix does there appear to
be in nature a kind of competition for the female. As many as
twenty males besiege a female lying under them for hours, all lying
in the same direction and constantly attempting to gain the back
of the female, which is as regularly prevented by a competitor. But
this takes place quietly, without one biting the other. As soon as
one of the males has attained his goal, he is pulled out of the wriggling
mass, tail foremost, by the female. The competitors who have been
left behind, as soon as they notice the disappearance of the female,
dash around excitedly and attempt copulation with any snake
encountered, whether it be of the same sex or of a different species.
The escaped pair meanwhile lies somewhere in a quiet place, and
only the frequent convulsive movement of the tail of the male shows
that they are alive."
Mr. Perkins has noted a similar behavior in captive Natrix and
Thamnophis. When a female is placed in a cage containing a number
of males, the males are at once thrown into a state of frenzied excite-
ment. They crawl excitedly over and among one another, and
attempt to mate with any individual encountered, regardless of sex.
There is no evidence of courtship in such cases.
This striking behavior probably does not normally take place
in nature, but is to be regarded as a result of confining a number
of individuals in a small space under artificial conditions. Thus,
Perry (1920) described a suggestive incident in Natrix sipedon.
A copulating pair was encountered on a bush overhanging a stream.
262 FIELD MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY ZOOLOGY, VOL. XX
Below this pair was a "confused mass" of "at least six" other indi-
viduals. "Presently the convulsions of the pair on the outer end
of the bush ceased. The smaller snake slowly disengaged himself
and joined the bunch below. His place was taken quickly by another
and the convulsions began again. One after another, the smaller
males paid their respects to the largest one, which I believe was a
female." Nevertheless, as pointed out below, the probable relation
between this aggregation reaction and the formation of snake "balls"
cannot be overlooked.
Dymond and Fry (1932) observed two mated pairs of the green
snake, Liopeltis vernalis. One pair was found in shrubbery, about
a foot above the ground. They noted that in neither pair was the
male in contact with the female except in the cloacal region.
Blanchard (1931) has briefly described the Natrix type of mating,
drawing attention to two highly important features previously over-
looked: "Before the act of copulation the male snake slides forward
along the upper surface of the female, his chin pressed close to her
back and his body lying along hers in sinuous curves. He then sets
his body into rhythmic undulations. The chin tubercles are thus
particularly well placed to serve as rubbing organs during the
maneuver." In addition to these comments on the chin tubercles,
he also draws attention to the fact that the supracloacal keels or
tubercles characteristic of the males of many snakes are brought
into contact with the body of the female during copulation.
The behavior of other colubrids differs strikingly from that of
Natrix and may be called the Coluber type of behavior. Stemmler-
Morath (op.cit.) has observed a complex courtship "dance" in Coluber
gemonensis, Elaphe longissima, and the species of Malpolon among
European snakes. The behavior is stated to be essentially the same
for all these species, and is described as follows for the European
whip-snake, Coluber gemonensis (translation) :
"A pair of splendid aesculapian snakes crawl quietly one behind
the other. The rear animal, obviously the male, tongues the body
of the crawling female almost continually. She gradually begins to
move more rapidly, but the more rapidly the female glides along,
the more actively the male follows. Finally the two long bodies of
both snakes dash along one behind the other, almost completely
extended. There is no longer any of the close application of the
body to the terrain in crawling which we are accustomed to see in
these snakes. The two animals hasten with uncanny speed through
the area, over rocks and ponds, often up into the bushes and down
MATING BEHAVIOR IN SNAKES DAVIS
again over the outermost twigs. This chase lasts until the male
succeeds in reaching the side of the female. He at once throws his
neck around the body of the female with lightning speed and draws up
his body, coiling around her in several turns while crawling forward
on the body of the female. The entwined pair continues to move
about the area, and for a quarter of an hour or more they crawl
through each other's coils uninterruptedly, so that first one and
FIG. 28. Courtship behavior in various colubrid snakes, a, Mating dance of Coluber gemonensis
(after Stemmler-Morath). b, Mating pair of Indian ratsnakes (Ptyas mueosus) (after Prater), e,
Mating pair of Coluber v. carbonarius showing the neck grip characteristic of certain colubrida (after
then the other is above. The heads are now carried always at the
same height. Suddenly one of the animals raises its front end until
the anterior third of the body, freed from its partner, stands almost
vertically. The other animal does likewise, and now the heads are
placed quite near each other and obliquely depressed forward. The
upraised anterior parts of the body, well separated from each other,
with only the posterior two-thirds of the bodies twined together
like wire, resemble a lyre (fig. 28, a). But not only do they exhibit this
handsome shape when at rest; they often dash through the terrarium
264 FIELD MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY ZOOLOGY, VOL. XX
in this attitude. In spite of the fact that they continually change
their relative positions by their constant crawling around each
other, they carefully preserve the character of the figure. Although
these dances often last more than an hour, I was never successful in
photographing it. The final union then usually takes place under a
bush, a rock or a tree, so that one rarely is able to see it. The male
always bites fast on the neck of the female."
Schreiber (1912) likewise states that the male often grasps the
neck of the female in his mouth. He also describes a unique court-
ship behavior in Coluber v. carbonarius. He states (translation) that
"they had mutually taken hold of each other's necks with their
mouths, while their tails were twisted together in a spiral." When
picked up by their tails, "their union persisted and they only let
go from time to time with their heads, only to attempt to seize each
other immediately, making twitching and pendulum-like back and
forth motions with the neck."
On the other hand, Stemmler-Morath claims that this behavior
does not take place in Elaphe q. quatuorlineatus. In this species the
male merely crawls quietly after the female for some time until
copulation takes place. The male, however, often seizes the neck
of the female in his jaws for a short time.
The mating behavior of the Indian ratsnake, Ptyas mucosus, as
described in a number of notes by various observers, apparently is
similar to that described by Stemmler-Morath for the European
colubrids. Wall (1921) quotes a letter from a Major Frere. 'Their
bodies," he says, "were twined together and writhing, except for the
anterior quarter. Their heads were raised from the ground for one
foot to eighteen inches and appeared to be sparring at each other like
two young cockerels. Their movements were active and vigorous."
Millett (1909) described the same procedure as follows: "The smaller
snake was slowly working his coils throughout up and down the
other, and both snakes were keeping their heads and free part of
their length erect and alternately twining their free part round each
other and approaching each other's heads in a 'billing and cooing'
manner. At the same time they were travelling very slowly in a
forward direction." Beadon (1910) speaks of coming upon mating
ratsnakes "with heads and free parts of the body [i.e. those not
mutually intertwined] slightly off the ground, facing each other."
A striking photograph of a pair of these snakes in copulation, unfortu-
nately without comment in the text, accompanies a paper by Prater
(1933) . This illustration, from which figure 28, b has been drawn, shows
1936 MATING BEHAVIOR IN SNAKES DAVIS 265
both individuals fully extended, their bodies twisted spirally around
each other from a point a short distance behind the head almost to
the tip of the tail. It is impossible to determine from the photograph
whether or not the male has taken the female in his jaws.
This behavior has not been reported in any North American
snake, although it may be looked for in Coluber and possibly in some
species of Elaphe. Meade (1932) in describing mating in a captive
pair of Lampropeltis getulus holbrooki notes that the male "seized the
body of the female in his jaws" and that "from time to time during
the preliminaries of the mating, which continued for over half an
hour, he would release his hold momentarily, grasping the body at a
new place after a few seconds."
Mr. A. S. Windsor, of the General Biological Supply House in
Chicago, recently described to me a curious series of observations on
the fox snake, Elaphe vulpina. Two individuals, from two to three
feet in length, were encountered in June, 1936, during field work in a
forest preserve area southwest of Chicago. When first found, one
snake apparently had swallowed some four inches of the anterior
end of the second, as evidenced by the bulge produced in the neck of
the one by the head of the other. The bodies of both were undergoing
continuous rhythmic and practically synchronous undulations. The
snakes were kept under observation for about twenty minutes, and
during all this time the undulations continued uninterruptedly.
The first snake made no effort to continue engulfing the second, nor
did the second seem to be alarmed by its extraordinary position.
The snakes were definitely not in copulation.
The observer left the scene and returned about fifteen minutes
later. At this time the first snake no longer had its partner's head in
its mouth, but had grasped it immediately behind the head. The
strong muscular contractions of the first individual indicated that it
was trying to regain the head of the second. The second snake did
not seem to resent this aggressiveness in the least. The undulations
of the bodies of both individuals continued without interruption
during this time. Observation was continued for about five minutes,
when the observer again left the scene. When he returned a few
minutes later both snakes had disappeared.
Elapidae. Wall (op. cit.) has recorded a few fragmentary notes
on the mating of the cobra, Naja naja. "In Mr. Hampton's vivarium
coitus lasted intermittently for three days. He observed that the
pair nodded their heads continually, and their bodies quivered.
They did not take the slightest notice of anybody in front of their
266 FIELD MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY ZOOLOGY, VOL. XX
cage. They did not expand their hoods, neither did they enwrap
themselves around one another. Each turned the vent upwards and
sideways to effect engagement."
Poyntz (1927) took a copulating pair of the related sea snakes
(species not identified) from the water in the Persian Gulf, but gave
FIG. 29. Mating dance of Vipera berus. Crotalids assume a similar position during courtship
(from photograph by Reuss).
no details on their behavior. It is highly interesting, however, that
copulation takes place in the water in these extremely aquatic snakes.
Viperidae. It is extraordinary that nothing has appeared on the
courtship behavior of members of this family, since the genus
Vipera is widely distributed over Europe. A photograph by T.
Reuss (in Heilborn, 1930) shows a pair of Vipera berus reared up in
an attitude similar to that described below for the pit vipers (fig. 29).
1936 MATING BEHAVIOR IN SNAKES DAVIS 267
It is probable that the mating behavior of the Viperidae is similar
to that of the Crotalidae, at least in its essential features, and con-
sists of a form of courtship dance, possibly associated with movements
by the male directed toward arousing the female. Should this prove
to be true, the courtship dance of the extremely heavy-bodied vipers,
such as Bitis gabonica, would be a curiously grotesque affair.
Crotalidae. Little has appeared on the mating behavior of
the pit vipers. It is regrettable that this highly specialized group of
snakes should have escaped observation, since they might throw
considerable light on the phylogeny of this behavior in the Serpentes.
Fortunately, Mr. Perkins has been able to supply some extremely
valuable information from observations made on captive specimens
at the St. Louis zoo. It is possible that the mating activities of both
the vipers and pit vipers normally take place at night, which would
explain the lack of field observations. However, Wood (1933),
who observed a pair of rattlesnakes courting in daylight, is inclined
to doubt this.
Guthrie (1927) observed several incomplete matings in a captive
pair of Sistrurus catenatus. He records that the male was seen trying
to copulate with the female three different times during one day,
the female seeming "entirely passive. The tail of the male was
wrapped entirely around the other, with the vents near together but
not in contact. The male showed a sort of spasmodic twitching,
mainly of the posterior half but sometimes of the entire body. At
one time his head exhibited excitement, the tongue frequently darting
far out and the head being thrust about above the body of the
female, who paid not the slightest attention."
Wiley (1929) observed several matings in a captive pair of
Crotalus atrox. She records that the male showed particular atten-
tion to the female "by rubbing his head and the anterior part of his
body over her. He followed her about whenever she moved around
in the cage and caressed her all the while. The next day the same
thing happened. It was not until a month later that the mating
Mr. Perkins has repeatedly witnessed courtship in the water
moccasin, Agkistrodon piscivorus. Under the artificial conditions
of captivity matings take place at all seasons of the year. Individual
pairs in captivity seem to consort together for months. Under the
stimulus of artificial warmth and sunlight they frequently engage in
a characteristic courtship dance, which is highly spectacular because
of the extreme vigor with which it is carried on by these powerful,
268 FIELD MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY ZOOLOGY, VOL. XX
heavy-bodied snakes. Both individuals erect the anterior half
of their bodies into the air. These elevated parts of the body are
then waved and lashed about erratically. Frequently the upraised
parts of the pair are placed together and each snake pushes and rubs
vigorously against its mate. The force with which these pushing
movements are carried on is occasionally evidenced when one
individual slips past the other. The sudden release of resistance
under these circumstances may throw the other snake several feet
across the cage. This extraordinary behavior may continue for
hours at a time, and is usually followed by copulation. The posterior
ends of the bodies are not usually twined together, although this may
occasionally take place accidentally. Other snakes in the same cage
do not seem to be affected by the activity of the courting pair.
Mr. Perkins has also observed the mating behavior of captive
specimens of the Mexican west coast rattlesnake, Crotalus basiliscus.
The courtship of this snake is essentially the same as that of the
water moccasin, although it is neither so violent nor so prolonged.
The male nudges the female and rubs the side of his head against
her body during courtship, which is a feature that has not been noted
Wood (op. cit.) momentarily observed a pair of courting Crotalus
confluentus in the field. She states that the female was "crawling
along the ground, and the smaller male, newly moulted, weaving
along her back." Unfortunately this courtship was neither observed
long enough nor described clearly enough to reveal anything of the
normal mating behavior of rattlesnakes in the wild.
Abnormal Mating Behavior. Several brief notes on abnormal
matings have appeared. These are instructive in the interpretation
of certain phases of mating behavior, and may profitably be con-
sidered. Simultaneous copulation of one female with two males has
been observed on a few occasions, although nothing is known of the
frequency of its occurrence in nature. Thus, Brennan (1924)
records an instance of two male garter snakes copulating simul-
taneously with a single large female, and Medsger (1927) observed
a similar case involving two males of Heterodon and the badly
mutilated carcass of a female of the same species. Truitt (op. cit.)
has also observed a male garter snake copulating with the carcass
of a dead female.
Dr. R. T. Hatt has loaned me several photographs of a captive
mating between a male Crotalus molossus and a female Crotalus atrox.
Nothing is known of the incidence of interspecific matings in nature.
1936 MATING BEHAVIOR IN SNAKES DAVIS 269
Snake ''Balls." A regular and recurrent feature of herpetological
literature is the description of tight aggregations or "balls" of snakes.
This subject has recently been reviewed by Wood (op. cit.), who
doubts that the phenomenon is related to mating: "It should give
survival value for an animal possessing internal fertilization to mate
efficiently, and not promiscuously in hampering aggregations. An
instinct among snakes to procreate in large numbers seems improb-
able in animals whose physiological and anatomical development
is well above the amphibian level." If sex recognition in snakes is
accomplished by means of an olfactory stimulus, however, there
is no apparent reason why an unlimited number of males should not
be attracted to the same female. According to the observations of
Stemmler-Morath and Perkins given above, proximity of a number
of males to a single female may result in a mass frenzy on the part
of the males. The phenomenon of a tight aggregation of males
around one female might well follow without involving an "instinct
to procreate in large numbers." Obviously the snake ball question
can be answered definitely only by careful examination and sexing
of the individuals making up a "ball."
SECONDARY SEXUAL CHARACTERS IN SNAKES
Snakes exhibit little sexual dimorphism. This is perhaps in
keeping with the singular simplicity and uniformity of their entire
habitus, since lizards display a wide variety of sexual differences in
both form and color. Nevertheless, since secondary sexual differences
frequently play a highly important part in sexual behavior, those
that are present in the Serpentes must be regarded as important.
True secondary sexual characters do not appear until puberty
and frequently are concerned in some way with sexual behavior.
The term "sexual dimorphism," on the other hand, pertains to all
differences between the sexes, and thus includes many differences
that are not known to be functional, or that are present from birth.
Since the nature and origin of many of these characters are obscure,
all known conspicuous sex differences have been included in the
The total lack of striking sexual dimorphism among members of
this group has doubtless contributed to the general lack of interest
in the topic. Taxonomists, who have aided so much with other
groups by cataloguing and describing sexual differences, have little
to offer with respect to the Serpentes. Nevertheless, certain of the
secondary sexual characters that do exist are of great interest, and
270 FIELD MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY ZOOLOGY, VOL. XX
deserve much more attention than they have received. Only twice
has anything like a broad survey of the sexual characters of this
group been undertaken, and both instances are of recent date.
Blanchard (op. cit.) considered a number of North American species
from this standpoint, and Pope (1935) has reviewed them briefly in
Proportions. As in most poikilothermous vertebrates, females
tend to exceed males of the same age in size. This is by no means
invariably true, however, and species in which males attain the
greater size are very erratically distributed. The functional signifi-
cance, if any, of this disparity is not at all clear, although Pope
(op. cit.) remarks that "since it is a well-known fact that the large
individual females usually produce more young than small ones
of the same species, one may safely consider body length of more
importance to females than to males." Klauber (1936) has verified
this correlation in the prairie rattlesnake, Crotalus c. confluentus.
He gives a coefficient of correlation of +0.7.
Apparently males of all species tend to have longer tails than
females, but there is considerable overlap between the sexes in this
respect. Thus, Burt (1928) measured 85 male and 115 female
specimens of Thamnophis sirtalis and found that 56 per cent of the
total fell in the overlapping group, although males exceeded females
in the modal index as well as in the greatest absolute proportionate
tail length. It is highly probable that the longer tail in males is
correlated with the presence of the hemipenes and their elongated
retractor muscles. The pronounced widening of the base of the
tail in males is well known because of its general use as a means of
sexing individuals in systematic work. It is obviously due to the
presence of the retracted hemipenes.
Scutellation. Sex-correlated variations occur in the scutellation
of most snakes. This is conspicuously true of the gastrosteges. The
summary of seventy-five Chinese species given by Pope (op. cit.)
shows that males of these forms almost invariably have a higher
subcaudal count. A few erratically distributed species show no
variation in this respect, but in no case does the female exceed the
male. While females tend to exceed males in number of ventrals, in
some species there is no difference in this respect, while in others the
males even exceed the females.
Sexual dimorphism in the number of dorsal scale rows is much
less common. Ruthven (1908) showed that the number of scale
rows in any region of the body is closely correlated with body girth,
1936 MATING BEHAVIOR IN SNAKES DAVIS 271
and consequently he believed that females would tend to have a
higher formula than males. Apparently this condition is seldom
realized. Ruthven himself was unable to demonstrate any signifi-
cant sexual difference in the enormous series of garter snakes examined
by him. Procter (1919) likewise failed to find any sharply defined
dimorphism in three British snakes, Natrix natrix, Coronella austriaca,
and Vipera berus. While statistical studies of large series would
doubtless reveal that females of many species tend to exceed males
in numbers of scale rows, instances of complete and consistent
dimorphism in this respect are singularly rare. In fact, the only
snake known where this is invariably exhibited is the African colu-
brid Bothrolycus ater, where the males have 17 rows and the female
19 on the anterior part of the body. It is significant that in this
species, as Schmidt (1923) has remarked, "the difference between
the sexes is unusually pronounced, the difference in size being quite
Dimorphism in the scutellation of the head appears not to have
been demonstrated, although a statistical study of large series of
individuals would probably reveal its presence, at least in some
Coloration. Sexual dimorphism in color is certainly not general.
Intensive work on large series, however, has revealed relatively
slight differences in color or intensity of color, or even differences in
the pattern, in a few species. Thus Pope (op. cit.) was able to dis-
tinguish sexual differences of this character in Natrix annularis,
Pseudoxenodon bambusicola, Psammodynastes pulverulentus, Trimere-
surus monticola, and T. stejnegeri, among seventy-five Chinese snakes.
Of these, only Trimeresurus stejnegeri showed any marked dimor-
phism, the others exhibiting only increased intensity of color in one
or the other sex. Among European snakes, Coronella austriaca and
Vipera berus have long been known to present a more or less constant
sex dichromatism (Franke, Schreiber, Durigen, Boulenger). Never-
theless, a hue or pattern characteristic of one sex is decidedly the
exception rather than the rule among snakes. Whether any of those
that do occur make their appearance only with the attainment of
sexual maturity, and would thus be associated directly with the
hormones of the gonads, is unknown.
Assumption of a nuptial coloration by the male is wholly unknown.
In this respect snakes stand in striking contrast to lizards, among
which nuptial livery is widely distributed.
272 FIELD MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY ZOOLOGY, VOL. XX
Chin Tubercles and Anal Keels. The sexual differences described
above are instances of sexual dimorphism, but can hardly lay claim
to recognition as true secondary sexual characters, since there is no
evidence that they have any functional significance or that they are
correlated with the onset of puberty. In some snakes, however,
there are structures which play a definite role in courtship. In
sexually mature males of certain species a cluster of tubercles is
present on the symphysial region of the chin (fig. 30). The presence
in males of ridges or knobbed keels on the dorsal scales surrounding
the cloacal region is even more widely distributed. Blanchard (1931)
FIG. 30. Chin region in male snakes, showing the distribution of tubercles and pustules. The
pustules in Thamnophis are not as prominent as indicated in the figure, a, Natrix rhombifera. b, Ninia
sebae. e, Thamnophis radix.
has recently examined a variety of North American snakes with
reference to these structures. He found that they are developed in
Carphophis, Diadophis, and Natrix after sexual maturity is attained.
An insignificant number of females also possessed anal keels, but
whether or not their presence was correlated with abnormalities in
the gonads was not determined. Harrison (1933) obtained similar
results with Thamnophis.
Blanchard found chin tubercles only in Natrix rhombifera among
North American snakes. From an examination of nearly two
hundred male specimens of this species, of various ages and collected
at various seasons, he was able to determine that these structures
1936 MATING BEHAVIOR IN SNAKES DAVIS 273
make their appearance only with the attainment of sexual maturity,
and that they are not subject to seasonal hypertrophy. Pope
(op. cit.) identified them in eight species of Chinese snakes of the
genera Natrix, Ophisthotropis, Enhydris, and Amblycephalus. They
are well developed in the Central American snake Ninia sebae
(fig. 30, &), and further work will doubtless reveal their presence in
other species. These facts show that the distribution of these
structures is erratic in the extreme. Their sporadic occurrence bears
no relation to natural affinities. It seems likely, therefore, that they
have evolved independently on several occasions. Observations on
the courtship behavior of species bearing these structures are lacking,
so that suggestions as to their functional significance must be
tentative and inferential.
Chin tubercles are not present in Thamnophis. Comparison of
the region in the two sexes, however, shows that the small sensory
FIG. 31. Modification of the anal keels in male Aspidura trachyprocta. a, Posterior end of body,
showing distribution of hooks. 6, A single scale, enlarged, seen from the side.
pustules characteristic of many snakes are considerably hypertro-
phied in male garter snakes (fig. 30, c).
This is also true of some other North American colubrids ( Natrix,
Storeria). In others (Coluber, Elaphe, Pituophis), however, pustules
are present but are equally developed in both sexes. There can be
little doubt that the slightly hypertrophied sensory pustules in the
male Thamnophis correspond to an early stage in the phylogenetic
history of the tubercles in other snakes.
Noble (1934a) has recently examined both the chin tubercles and
the anal knobs histologically. He states that "each organ consists of
a capsule of irregularly arranged tactile cells and many nerve fibers.
The organs of the chin differ radically from those above the cloaca
in having one or more narrow extensions piercing the overlying
epidermis to near the horny layer."
274 FIELD MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY ZOOLOGY, VOL. XX
Spurs in Boas and Pythons. There is considerable sexual dimor-
phism in the size of the claw or spur which is the only external
vestige of the hind limbs in boas and pythons (Beddard, 1905).
In the males of many species this structure is a comparatively large,
curved hook, whereas in the female it is often reduced to a tiny
horny projection (fig. 32). It is not known whether the hyper-
trophy of this structure in males is correlated with the onset of
puberty, and the material at hand is not extensive enough to de-
FIG. 32. Sexual dimorphism in t he spurs of a boa, Epierotet st riot us. a, Male. 6, Female.
termine this by an examination of series of immature and adult
specimens of both sexes. These claws deserve considerable atten-
tion, since they are among the few structures in snakes which
function actively in courtship.
Anal Scent Glands. Both sexes of snakes are provided with a pair
of glands buried in the musculature of the tail. These glands pour
into the cloaca a pungent secretion, the odor and color of which
vary considerably from species to species. This secretion has often
been associated with the sexual behavior of snakes, but since the
glands are present and equally functional in both sexes, as well as
in young individuals, its sexual significance is doubtful. The expul-
1936 MATING BEHAVIOR IN SNAKES DAVIS 275
sion of this liquid is important in the defensive behavior of many
species, and it is at least possible that it may function in recognition
of species. Its true function, therefore, is obscure.
COURTSHIP AND MATING IN THAMNOPHIS RADIX
The plains garter snake, Thamnophis radix, is the commonest and
most generally distributed snake in the Chicago region. It is a
hardy species, varying its staple diet of earthworms with a wide
assortment of foods, and thriving in a variety of habitats. It is not
uncommon in well-populated suburban areas, where "rock gardens"
constructed by amateur horticulturists offer it a congenial retreat.
If unmolested, one or more individuals usually take up their abode
in these loose piles of rock, where they seem to remain from year
The observations forming the basis of the following discussion were
made by Mr. A. C. Weed, of the Field Museum staff. Mr. Weed,
an observer of long and wide experience, made voluminous notes
on each of the three days when mating activities were observed.
He has generously placed these notes in my hands and they have
been amplified by personal discussions the day following the actual
The observations were made in the yard of Mr. Weed's home at
Morgan Park, Illinois. The arrangement of this area is shown in
figure 34. The snakes had apparently been living in the rock garden
for several years, retreating into it to hibernate in the fall and
reappearing in the spring. They had not been seen in 1936 before
the initial observations were made, on April 19. The individuals
were not marked, but were readily identified on any given occasion
through differences in size and coloration.
Observations of April 19, 1936. The snakes concerned in the
observations of April 19, two males and a female, were first
seen in the rock garden shortly after 10:00 A.M. The day was bright
and sunny, with a chilly southwest wind and an air temperature
between 50 and 60 F. The larger of the two males, estimated to
be about twenty-four inches in length, was brilliantly colored and
had apparently shed recently; the colors of the smaller male, which
was about six inches shorter, and of the female were comparatively
dull. The female was approximately the same length as the larger
of the two males.
The female and the smaller male were first seen together on top
of the rock garden. They were then very alert and cautious and
276 FIELD MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY ZOOLOGY, VOL. XX
disappeared quickly. A few minutes later they appeared together
in a mass of dry leaves about three feet north of the rock garden,
where they were sheltered from the wind and in the bright sun.
They were still very alert and active, moving in and out among
the stones. The male at this time showed no active interest in the
female, although he remained near her. Within a few seconds the
third snake, immediately recognizable by its brilliant colors, appeared
for the first time and also entered the rock pile. A moment later
the heads of all three snakes were in sight, protruding from crevices
between the stones.
After half a minute of inactivity the female suddenly darted
from the stone pile, with the smaller male in close pursuit. Moving
north about three feet, she described a circle about two feet in
diameter, finally stopping with her body nearly straight. The
male was two or three inches behind. After a short pause he touched
the female with his muzzle several inches from the tip of her tail,
apparently directly over the vent. He hesitated momentarily,
then started to glide along her back, following each curve of her
body closely. During this movement the male's neck was arched
slightly, thus bringing the symphysial region of his chin directly
in contact with her dorsal midline. No flicking of the tongue on
the part of the male was observed, and the female remained motionless.
When the tails of the pair were together the male stopped and
began to bend the rear part of his body around hers. Contact was
apparently established almost immediately. A few seconds later
there was a gradual tensing and quivering of the entire body of the
male. This movement brought the cloacal regions of the pair into
very intimate contact. About five seconds later the body of the
male suddenly relaxed slightly and became quiet. These actions,
which were interpreted as indicating the actual orgasm, were
repeated at intervals of less than a minute at first, with later con-
tractions spaced somewhat farther apart. After a dozen or more
contractions of his body, the male withdrew the hemipenis, turned
his body, and seemed to make a new entry with the opposite hemi-
penis. The female was quiet during the first few orgasms, although
during the later ones her body tensed and quivered in the same way
as that of the male. After about a dozen orgasms in the new position
the pair separated voluntarily and the male moved away.
During these activities the second male emerged from the rock
pile. Moving up to the mated pair, he ran his chin along the back
of the female exactly as described for the first male, but made no
MATING BEHAVIOR IN SNAKES DAVIS
attempt to copulate until the original male had withdrawn and
reinserted, when he tried half-heartedly to maneuver his cloaca
around to that of the female. At this time he emitted a small quan-
tity of whitish, semi-liquid material, apparently the product of the
scent glands, although its identity was not determined.
As soon as the first male started to move away the second renewed
his attempt to copulate. The first returned quickly, however, and,
FIG. 33. Copulating pair of Thamnophia radix. Note the position of the head of the male (from
photograph by Blanchard).
nosing his way under the other male, mated for the second time.
Ten minutes later the three snakes were lying quietly near one
another. At a slight disturbance the first male left. The second
male immediately went through the courtship activities, running
his chin along the back of the female from a point near the base of
her tail until he had reached a position suitable for mating. Copula-
tion took place at once, following the same pattern as that described
for the first male. The hemipenes were employed successively as
before. The first male returned and tried to effect an entry from
the opposite side, but was unsuccessful.
278 FIELD MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY ZOOLOGY, VOL. XX
Five minutes later all three snakes had moved so that their
bodies were completely hidden in the leaves and grass, leaving only
their tails visible. The tails were side by side, and were moving,
in unison, quite rapidly from one side to the other, as if both males
were trying unsuccessfully to copulate at the same time. A few
minutes later the snakes were lying near one another and, contrary
to their behavior a short time before, were very alert. When the
observer approached they all beat a hasty retreat and hid in the
These activities occupied approximately an hour. During the
time of active courtship and mating, none of the snakes paid any
attention to the observer's presence, allowing a cautious approach
to within four or five feet without taking alarm. This behavior
was in sharp contrast to their wariness immediately before and after
mating activity. The dominance of the smaller of the two males
over his larger companion of the same sex was striking and con-
sistent. Although there was no evidence of active antagonism or
pugnacity between them, the larger male seemed to recognize the
dominance of his smaller rival and courted the female actively only
when his companion was not present.
Observations of May 10. A remarkable series of observations
made on May 10 leaves little doubt that the sense of smell may
play an important part in the mating of Thamnophis radix. They
took place in the same spot as those of April 19, and under similar
circumstances. The female was a smaller individual than the
female of April 19.
May 10 was cloudy, with an air temperature of 76 F. The
pair was first seen, in copulo, at 9 :40 A. M. They were left undisturbed
for ten minutes, during which time they remained in connection.
Then the observer approached cautiously and the female left quickly
when he had reached a distance of three feet. The pair apparently
broke readily, for the male was not dragged by the female, as has
frequently been described. When the observer approached to
within six inches the male started to move, but stopped about the
time his body was straightened out from the loosely coiled position
it had occupied. He waited in this position for about twenty seconds,
then obviously began to search for the trail of the female. He
moved roughly in a circle, and made almost a complete circuit of
the place where the pair had originally been before he struck her
trail. During this circling he continually flicked the ground with
his tongue, touching almost the whole upper surface of the forked
MATING BEHAVIOR IN SNAKES DAVIS
part, with the tips directed backward, to the ground each time.
When he struck the trail of the female the tongue-flicking became
noticeably more rapid. The subsequent movements of the snakes
are shown somewhat diagrammatically in figure 34.
As soon as he found the trail, the male followed it very exactly
into a clump of flowers, a distance of four feet. The snakes were
lost to the observer for a moment, but were shortly seen to emerge
from another clump of flowers four feet away. The female immedi-
ately started east toward a large clump of dense underbrush where
',4/ye? Bright <t Clump (mainly hollyhock)
SnV of female
^ Srail of male
IIIIIIIIIIIHIIII Course offuhen definitely trailing ?
" Course of duke* probably trailing ?
X Points uhere f struck brail of- J
Scale: finch -3 f I.
FIG. 34. Diagram showing movements of courting garter snakes (see text).
she could not have been followed by the observer. She was headed
off, and turned northwest. She then moved rapidly into another
large clump of underbrush along the fence, into which she dis-
appeared. A few seconds later she was seen to emerge from the
farther side of this clump. The female was lost permanently to
the observer at this point, but from subsequent behavior of the
male it is apparent that she continued moving along the fence,
probably eventually taking refuge in the rock garden.
Meanwhile the male lay quietly in the open. A moment later
he started to crawl toward the underbrush from which the female
had been headed off. Circling through the vegetation several times,
280 FIELD MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY ZOOLOGY, VOL. XX
he eventually struck the trail of the female again. The male was
then crawling at a right angle to the trail. Turning abruptly, he
followed it directly at full gliding speed until close to the second
clump of underbrush. Here he apparently overran the "scent"
on a slight turn. Circling about, he picked it up again on the first
cast, and apparently followed it straight through.
Continuing along the fence for about ten feet, he came upon a
large female T. radix, apparently the one of April 19. Just before
this he must have passed unobserved very close to another snake,
which was probably the "bright colored male" of April 19. His
path brought him to the body of the female about at her vent. He
stopped momentarily and seemed to press his chin down on her
back, then passed on quickly. The observer at this time was about
fifteen feet away, and the details of the behavior could not be seen.
The male continued along the fence for about ten feet farther, and
then seemed to lose the scent. He circled under the fence, and
after casting about several times struck the trail he had just left
and started to backtrack along it. He followed the trail until he
again encountered the "large female." Again he stopped and
pressed his chin along her back, moving toward her head for about
an inch in the same way as described in the courtship of April 19.
He did not continue courting this female, however, but left abruptly.
Circling the rock garden several times, he finally entered it and
disappeared at 10:10 A.M.
The "bright male" disappeared shortly after the male under
observation had passed, but the "large female" remained in the
same place for an hour longer. When the observer approached,
she appeared nervous and disappeared.
The mating activities just described occupied approximately
thirty minutes of elapsed time. On several occasions there was
unmistakable evidence that the male was tracing the female wholly
by means of some chemical sense, presumably smell. She was
certainly invisible to him from the time the observations began.
On three distinct occasions he was seen to search for her trail deliber-
ately, and twice when he struck it he turned abruptly at a right
angle to his former course. On a fourth occasion the male gave
every evidence of picking up the trail of the female, although she
was not seen by the observer to pass that point. Each of these
points is marked by an x on the diagram (fig. 34). It has frequently
been stated that the tongue in snakes serves to carry odorous par-
1936 MATING BEHAVIOR IN SNAKES DAVIS 281
tides to the olfactory organs, and in this connection the continuous
flicking of the tongue by the searching male is particularly interesting.
The male's lack of interest in the "large female" is likewise note-
worthy, indicating either that snakes are able to distinguish and
identify individuals of their own species, or that the female during
courtship gives some sign of acceptance or the opposite to the court-
Observations of May 24- Observations were made on this date
which supply further data on the mating behavior of this species.
A close watch on subsequent week-ends failed to reveal further
mating activity, although the snakes were seen regularly. The
1936 breeding season in Thamnophis radix therefore began about
the middle of April and continued into the last week of May.
May 24 was warm and mostly cloudy, with an air temperature
of about 80 F. The area around the rock garden was examined every
half hour or oftener during the morning, but the snakes were not
seen until 12:00 M. Three individuals, two males and a female,
were observed. These were apparently the same snakes as those
seen on April 19.
When first observed, one of the males was already in copulation
with the female. The smaller male was trying vigorously to dis-
possess his rival by forcing his head and body between the mated
pair. The movements of the unmated male agitated the copulating
pair considerably, causing the copulating male to lose contact with
the female several times. All three snakes were much more active
than on previous occasions, and the female in particular seemed
much more alert. The three snakes were so closely intertwined
at all times that it was difficult to be certain, except two or three
times, which male was actually in copulation with the female. The
smaller male seemed to be unsuccessful at all times, however, in
spite of his greater activity. During the entire time of certain
contact, the larger male kept the whole lower surface of his head
pressed against the back of the female, with its longitudinal axis
parallel with her vertebral column. The smaller male also assumed
this position a few times.
When the snakes were first seen, the smaller male was moving
rather actively, and once was as much as three inches away from
the other two. Later he twined in with the others and the three
moved as a unit until they disappeared. The males seemed to pay
no attention to the observer, but the female watched him very
closely when he sat down within a distance of four feet. When he
282 FIELD MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY ZOOLOGY, VOL. XX
returned after an absence of several minutes the three snakes had
moved forward leaving no more than half their bodies exposed. The
heads could be seen occasionally on the far side of one of the stones.
They continued to move forward slowly, and within ten minutes
had disappeared completely.
The behavior of these three snakes suggests a possible explanation
of the formation of "snake balls." If two males will besiege a female
simultaneously, what is to prevent this number from increasing,
when additional males are present, until the writhing aggregations
of snakes described in the literature are formed?
SEX RECOGNITION IN SNAKES
It has been realized only rather recently that sex recognition
may have an important bearing on courtship behavior. In many
animals, such as lizards and birds, striking secondary sexual charac-
ters and complicated "courtship" displays are now known to be
used to intimidate other individuals, regardless of sex, rather than
to court the female. Mating is attempted with any individual that
can be forced to submit, and sex recognition as such appears to be
absent. In other animals, as for example frogs, when a male attempts
to mate with another male, the second individual gives a warning
note which serves effectively to warn the aggressive male of his
mistake. The female fails to make this warning cry, so sex recogni-
tion operates only between males. On the other hand, it has long
been known that a female moth may attract hundreds of males
by means of a chemical sense. In other words, the males recognize
the female as distinguished from other males of the same species.
In view of the voluminous literature on sex recognition in various
other groups, it is strange that nothing has been written that bears
directly on it in snakes. Experimental work aimed directly at this
subject is much to be desired. Certain tentative conclusions may,
however, be drawn from existing data.
The observations recorded above (p. 278) indicate that odor is
an important factor in enabling the male to seek out and trail the
female. From this it seems likely that the same factor is involved
in enabling the male to distinguish between the sexes at the time
of mating. If this is true, it is a method of sex identification that is
unknown elsewhere among the lower vertebrates, and is strikingly
similar to that employed by certain moths. Noble and Clausen
(1936) have recently corroborated these observations experimentally.
In studying the factors responsible for the aggregation behavior
1936 MATING BEHAVIOR IN SNAKES DAVIS 283
of Storeria, they tested the ability of snakes to "trail" other indi-
viduals across the bottoms of glass-sided cages. The body integu-
ment or the cloacal region, respectively, were rubbed along marked
trails, and the reactions of other individuals, when released in the
cage, observed. They conclude that "it may be stated that nor-
mally, irrespective of the breeding season, there is some odorous
substance given off by the integument of these snakes which attracts
other members of the same species, and that during the breeding
season this, or more probably another substance, is given off by the
female which in turn attracts the male and enables the male to
distinguish sex. The nature of this substance is as yet undeter-
mined." Curiously enough, they state that snakes not only failed
to follow a trail scented with the cloacal gland secretion, but even
avoided it; they say "the body integument and not the cloacal
glands leave a trail which aids snakes in seeking and identifying
the opposite sex" (p. 308), and "in all cases the snakes failed to
cross a trail scented with cloacal gland secretion" (p. 309). It is
difficult to see how a snake crawling along the ground could fail to
bring its cloaca into contact with the substratum, and in so doing
leave a trail of scent from that part of the body, yet we have seen
(p. 278) that a courting male Thamnophis will follow such a trail
It is apparent, then, that snakes recognize sex directly, through
an olfactory stimulus. In this they stand in very striking contrast
to lizards, where sex is recognized by the trial and error method of
attempting to mount any individual, regardless of sex, until a female
is found with which mating can be accomplished.
The literature reveals a need for critical observation of the
mating behavior of even the commonest species of snakes. Obviously
there is not a simple, stereotyped pattern broadly characteristic
of the entire group, as heretofore has been generally supposed. On
the contrary, further investigation promises to reveal an extraor-
dinarily rich variety of characteristic performances. Detailed
knowledge is now available only for a few of the most common
colubrids, although something is known of courtship behavior in
nearly all the important families of snakes. Without attempting to
theorize on the basis of a few genera which seem to supply favorable
data, certain conclusions, some of them admittedly tentative, may
284 FIELD MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY ZOOLOGY, VOL. XX
It has long been known that certain definite courtship patterns
characterize natural groups of species in some invertebrates, in
salamanders, and in birds. Noble and Bradley (1933) have shown
that this is also true to a certain extent among lizards. In the
Serpentes, data for more than one or two genera of a family are
available only in the Colubridae. There the courtship pattern of
Thamnophis, which consists of rubbing movements by the male
directed toward self-stimulation, with the female remaining entirely
passive, is wholly different from the complicated "mating dance"
of Coluber, Elaphe, Malpolon, and Ptyas, which is apparently an
expression of mutual excitement. Whether the simpler procedure
that has been described for Lampropeltis and certain species of
Elaphe, in which the male merely grasps the female in his jaws,
represents another modification of the behavior pattern or is merely
incompletely observed or abnormal courtship, is uncertain. It
seems likely that further observation will reveal that identical or
closely similar performances tend to characterize natural groups.
It is, of course, impossible to say to what extent this may be true.
A simple courtship behavior perhaps is associated with more "primi-
tive" species. In this connection it is suggestive that Natrix and
closely related genera are regarded as more primitive than Coluber
and its close relatives.
Data are extremely fragmentary for the non-colubrid families.
The courtship behavior of boas and pythons is apparently unique.
Indeed, because of the absence of well-developed external limb rudi-
ments in other snakes, it could not be duplicated. Movements of
the hind limbs form an essential part of the courtship pattern in
many lizards. Although there is small probability of any correlation,
this fact is interesting in view of the position the Boidae and Pytho-
nidae occupy at the bottom of the evolutionary scale in snakes.
A mating dance takes place in all poisonous snakes upon which
observations have been made. This dance is so strikingly similar
to the Coluber type of dance as to suggest phylogenetic continuity,
although in some respects the Coluber type is more complex than
that of the morphologically more specialized poisonous snakes. In
this connection, knowledge of the mating behavior of members of
the annectant Boigidae might prove illuminating.
Extreme development of those secondary sexual characters not
directly concerned with the act of copulation (horns and other
appendages, hypertrophied or brilliantly colored parts of the body)
is frequently associated with fighting or intimidating displays among
1936 MATING BEHAVIOR IN SNAKES DAVIS 285
males. Such activities are directed either toward acquisition of a
harem or defense of territory, or they are the means of sex recog-
nition. Harem formation is highly characteristic of certain gregari-
ous mammals, birds, and at least one lizard (Amblyrhynchus).
Defense of territory during the breeding season occurs frequently
among birds, and has been noted in several lizards. Sex recognition
through intimidating displays is likewise characteristic of certain
members of these two groups.
Fighting and development of weapons for conflict or intimidation
are both conspicuously absent in snakes. Such sex-limited structures
as are present function solely as stimulating organs. Aggregations
of many individuals are known to take place during hibernation in
Coluber, Thamnophis, Storeria, and Crotalus, and probably occur in
many others, but snakes are in no sense gregarious. Mating nor-
mally takes place at the time of emergence from hibernation before
the population has scattered, but in spite of the resulting close
association of many individuals fighting does not seem to occur.
Franke alone remarks that captive breeding males of Coronella "not
infrequently engaged in fighting, during which they bit each other."
Farther on he remarks, however, that he has never observed other
individuals interfering with a mated pair. Other authors have been
at pains to emphasize the absence of fighting.
This lack of fighting is probably correlated with the failure of
males to defend territories or harems. The absence of armature or
intimidating devices, in turn, is related to the failure of males to
fight. The whole social life of snakes appears extremely simple in
comparison with that of many other groups, yet the courtship
behavior of these animals is curiously diversified, and in some
respects rather complex.
In many respects the Natrix-Thamnophis group occupies a
unique and anomalous position. The sexual behavior of these
snakes is curious, even degenerate, compared with that of other
snakes. Courtship is of a type unknown elsewhere. There is no
indication that the female participates in it, except as a purely
passive object of the attentions of the male, nor does the male behave
in such a way as to stimulate her. There is no evidence that indi-
viduals recognize each other, whereas in other snakes pairs are
known to consort together almost permanently. So-called polyandry
has often been described in both Natrix and Thamnophis, and prob-
ably normally takes place when more than one male is in the vicinity
of a breeding female. Strangely enough, this aberrant type of
286 FIELD MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY ZOOLOGY, VOL. XX
mating behavior has generally been assumed to be typical of the
snakes as a whole.
MATING OF SNAKES AND LIZARDS COMPARED
While the Serpentes and the Sauria form two sharply distinguished
groups of reptiles, they are conceded to have had a common ancestry,
and are far more closely related to one another than either is to
any other reptilian line. It is therefore of more than ordinary inter-
est to compare the mating behavior of members of these two groups.
The behavior of lizards has been studied in detail by Noble
(1934b), Noble and Bradley (1933), and Evans (1935, 1936), mostly
through observations on captive individuals. Noble and Bradley
concluded that active sex recognition does not exist in lizards, but
Noble (1934b) believed that sight might be a factor in Sceloporus
after observing it in the field. Noble and Bradley concluded also
that such sex discrimination as does exist is based on the fight reac-
tion displayed by the males when approached by other individuals.
In other words, copulation is attempted with any individual that
can be forced to submit. Evans (1935) believed, on the other hand,
that sight is an important factor in sex recognition in Anolis, and
that homosexual matings are probably induced by captivity. The
direct recognition of sex, through scent, which is found in snakes,
stands in the sharpest possible contrast to that of lizards, whether
it is indirect or by sight in the latter.
Noble and Bradley concluded that the courtship and mating
of lizards is "a very stereotyped performance, which has changed
slowly in phylogeny." The savage rape, with the female in active
flight, which is practiced by male lizards, seems a very primitive
type of behavior when compared with the mutual mating dance of
many snakes, or the persistent, gentle persuasion indulged in by
male boids and pythonids. The varied basic courtship patterns
of snakes show that courtship in this group is by no means stereo-
typed, but has undergone radical and significant changes in the
history of the group.
One of the most striking features of the behavior of lizards is the
assuming and defending of territories by males. This practice,
which is well known in birds, is probably closely correlated, or even
identical, with the "despotism" or "dominance" noted by Evans
(1935) in captive populations. In some lizards at least (Anolis,
Sceloporus}, it is in this connection that the secondary sexual charac-
ters of the male are brought into full play. Such sex-limited struc-
1936 MATING BEHAVIOR IN SNAKES DAVIS 287
tures are invariably either true weapons or highly colored parts
which are used in bluffing displays. There is no known structure
in lizards which has a hedonic or stimulating function. It is note-
worthy that snakes, on the other hand, are not known to define and
defend territories, and fighting does not seem to be a normal accompa-
niment of their behavior. Secondary sexual characters are extremely
limited among them. Highly ornamented parts, which are so
common in male lizards, never occur. Both of the known secondary
sexual characters in snakes (hypertrophied spurs in boas and pythons
and chin tubercles in certain colubrids) function directly as stim-
ulating organs. The same is probably true of the anal knobs or
keels found in the males of many snakes.
As investigation progresses, it is increasingly apparent that
the sexual behavior of lizards is strikingly similar to that of birds.
This can readily be accounted for on the basis of the reptilian ancestry
of birds, if the snakes are disregarded. Whether snakes have acquired
unique behavior patterns along with their structural specializations
is, of course, a question which cannot be answered. The indications
are, however, that this may be true.
Under any circumstances, it is obvious that the mating behavior
of snakes differs from that of lizards in every essential respect. The
implications of this fact cannot be fully evaluated at this time,
although they may well prove to be of great significance.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
(1) Several distinct types of courtship are evident in snakes.
In boas and pythons, the male arouses the female by scratching
her body, above the cloaca, with his spurs.
In the Natrix group of colubrids, the male rubs his chin along the
back of the female, which results in self-stimulation of the male.
In the Coluber group of colubrids, there is a mutual mating
In the Crotalidae, and probably also in the Elapidae and Viper-
idae, there is a "dance" similar to that of Coluber.
(2) Available data indicate that given types of courtship
behavior are common to related groups of species.
(3) Secondary sexual characters are almost unknown among
snakes. The chin tubercles and anal keels or knobs found in a few
species and the hypertrophied spurs in male boas and pythons are
the only ones known to function in courtship.
288 FIELD MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY ZOOLOGY, VOL. XX
(4) Sex recognition depends on the sense of smell. The males,
of certain species at least, may trail the female for a considerable
distance at the time of mating. Odor apparently emanates from
the body integument, rather than from the scent glands (Noble and
(5) Males do not fight among themselves during the breeding
season. Correlated with this, there is no defense of territory or
(6) The courtship of lizards is in many respects similar to that of
birds. On the other hand, the mating behavior of snakes is of a
wholly different type. It does not closely resemble that of any other
group of vertebrates.
(7) There is at present little evidence in favor of sexual selection
in the mating behavior of snakes.
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UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS-URBANA